Everyone on Earth now has a slightly more developed feel for what it’s like to live through a pandemic. Note that not all of these books feature a horrifying descent into a plague-ridden apocalypse; some go in stranger and quirkier directions.
Author David Koepp wrote the screenplay for Jurassic Park.
When Pentagon bioterror operative Roberto Diaz was sent to investigate a suspected biochemical attack, he found something far worse: a highly mutative organism capable of extinction-level destruction. He contained it and buried it in cold storage deep beneath a little-used military repository.
Now, after decades of festering in a forgotten sub-basement, the specimen has found its way out and is on a lethal feeding frenzy. Only Diaz knows how to stop it.
He races across the country to help two unwitting security guards—one an ex-con, the other a single mother. Over one harrowing night, the unlikely trio must figure out how to quarantine this horror again. All they have is luck, fearlessness, and a mordant sense of humor. Will that be enough to save all of humanity?
“Chilling… Propulsive… Koepp is skilled at sharp, often humorous dialogue… [A] taut, mordant thriller debut.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.
Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears, too.
Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a dangerous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.
“Shepherd’s debut is graceful and riveting, slowly peeling back layers of an intricately constructed and unsettling alternate future.”
A plague has brought death to the city. Two feuding crime families with blood on their hands need our hard-boiled hero, The Redeemer, to broker peace.
“In Herrera’s slim, amusing book, [he] strips Romeo & Juliet to its essence and sets it against a plague that symbolizes Mexico’s recent violent history.”
Y: The Last Man won three Eisner Awards and was one of the most critically acclaimed, best-selling comic books series of this (admittedly young) century.
Yorick Brown is the only human survivor of a planet-wide plague that instantly kills every mammal possessing a Y chromosome. Accompanied by a mysterious government agent, a brilliant young geneticist, and his pet monkey, Ampersand, Yorick travels the world in search of his lost love and the answer to why he’s the last man on earth.
“Complete and utter gold.”
It is history’s most feared disease. It turned neighbor against neighbor, the civilized into the savage, and the living into the dead. Now, in a spellbinding novel of adventure and science, romance and terror, two eras are joined by a single trace of microscopic bacterium—the invisible seeds of a new bubonic plague.
In the year 1348, a disgraced Spanish physician crosses a landscape of horrors to Avignon, France. There, he will be sent on an impossible mission to England, to save the royal family from the Black Death.
Nearly seven hundred years later, a woman scientist digs up a clod of earth in London. In a world where medicine is tightly controlled, she will unearth a terror lying dormant for centuries.
“Benson reveals a formidable talent as she blends historical fiction with a near-future bio-thriller.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Heads up: this book combines science fiction and magic.
It began on New Year’s Eve.
The sickness came on suddenly, and spread quickly. The fear spread even faster. Within weeks, everything people counted on began to fail them. The electrical grid sputtered, law and government collapsed—and more than half of the world’s population was decimated.
Where there had been order, there was now chaos. And as the power of science and technology receded, magick rose up in its place. Some of it is good, like the witchcraft worked by Lana Bingham, practicing in the loft apartment she shares with her lover, Max. Some of it is unimaginably evil, and it can lurk anywhere, around a corner, in fetid tunnels beneath the river—or in the ones you know and love the most.
As word spreads that neither the immune nor the gifted are safe from the authorities who patrol the ravaged streets, and with nothing left to count on but each other, Lana and Max make their way out of a wrecked New York City. At the same time, other travelers are heading west too, into a new frontier: Chuck, a tech genius trying to hack his way through a world gone offline. Arlys, a journalist who has lost her audience but uses pen and paper to record the truth. Fred, her young colleague, possessed of burgeoning abilities and an optimism that seems out of place in this bleak landscape. And Rachel and Jonah, a resourceful doctor and a paramedic who fend off despair with their determination to keep alive a young mother and three infants in their care.
In a world of survivors where every stranger encountered could be either a savage or a savior, none of them knows exactly where they are heading, or why. But a purpose awaits them that will shape their lives and the lives of all those who remain.
The end has come. The beginning comes next.
“Fascinating characters and a well-built dystopia combine with a riveting plot that will attract a whole new group of readers.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
In the wake of a highly contagious virus, California is under quarantine. Sequestered in high-rise towers, the living can’t go out, but the dead can come in—and they come in all forms, from sad rolling cans to manufactured bodies that can pass for humans. Wealthy participants in the “companionship” program choose to upload their consciousness before dying, so they can stay in the custody of their families. The less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death, but all companions become the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, creating a new class of people—a command-driven product-class without legal rights or true free will.
Sixteen-year-old Lilac is one of the less fortunate, leased to a family of strangers. But when she realizes she’s able to defy commands, she throws off the shackles of servitude and runs away, searching for the woman who killed her.
Lilac’s act of rebellion sets off a chain of events that sweeps from San Francisco to Siberia to the very tip of South America. While the novel traces Lilac’s journey through an exquisitely imagined Northern California, the story is told from eight different points of view—some human, some companion—that explore the complex shapes love, revenge, and loneliness take when the dead linger on.
The sound of children’s speech has become lethal. In the park, adults wither beneath the powerful screams of their offspring. For young parents Sam and Claire, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther. But they find it isn’t so easy to leave someone you love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a foreign world to try to save his family.
“Crackles with vicious intelligence.”
The townspeople of Oran are in the grip of a deadly plague, which condemns its victims to a swift and horrifying death. Fear, isolation, and claustrophobia follow as they are forced into quarantine. Each person responds in their own way to the lethal disease: some resign themselves to fate, some seek blame, and a few, like Dr. Rieux, resist the terror.
The Plague is in part an allegory of France’s suffering under the Nazi occupation, and a timeless story of bravery and determination against the precariousness of human existence.
“Its relevance lashes you across the face.”
—The Los Angeles Times
After being bitten by a rattlesnake in the mountains above Berkeley, California, Isherwood Williams gets a measles-like disease. He can’t get home and moves in and out of consciousness. Eventually, he recovers and makes his way back to civilization to find almost everyone on Earth is dead. He is one of the few survivors, and they must decide how to keep humanity alive.
“This is a book… that I’d place not only among the greatest science fiction but among our very best novels.”
Author Lawrence Wright has won the Pulitzer Prize.
At an internment camp in Indonesia, forty-seven people are pronounced dead with acute hemorrhagic fever. When Henry Parsons—microbiologist, epidemiologist—travels there on behalf of the World Health Organization to investigate, what he finds will soon have staggering repercussions across the globe: an infected man is on his way to join the millions of worshippers in the annual Hajj to Mecca.
Now, Henry joins forces with a Saudi prince and doctor in an attempt to quarantine the entire host of pilgrims in the holy city.
A Russian émigré, a woman who has risen to deputy director of U.S. Homeland Security, scrambles to mount a response to what may be an act of biowarfare. Already-fraying global relations begin to snap, one by one, in the face of a pandemic. Henry’s wife, Jill, and their children face diminishing odds of survival in Atlanta, and the disease slashes across the United States, dismantling institutions—scientific, religious, governmental—and decimating the population.
“This timely literary page-turner shows Wright is on a par with the best writers in the genre.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
One night in an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a first-year student stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. When a second girl falls asleep, and then a third, Mei finds herself thrust together with an eccentric classmate as panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. A young couple tries to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. Two sisters turn to each other for comfort as their survivalist father prepares for disaster.
Those affected by the illness, doctors discover, are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, higher than has ever been recorded before. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?
“Richly imaginative and quietly devastating… Walker jolts the narrative with surprising twists, ensuring it keeps its energy until the end. This is a skillful, complex, and thoroughly satisfying novel about a community in peril.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A hundred miles north of Alaska, a US Coast Guard vessel discovers a sunken submarine at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. It has no national identification and doesn’t match the records of any known vessel. Deep within, researchers find evidence of a scientific experiment that will rewrite our basic understanding of the human race.
In Atlanta, Dr. Peyton Shaw is awakened by the phone call she has dreaded for years. As the CDC’s leading epidemiologist, she’s among the first responders to outbreaks around the world. It’s a lonely and dangerous job, but it’s her life—and she’s good at it. This time, she may have met her match.
In Kenya, an Ebola-like pathogen has infected two Americans. One lies at death’s door. With the clock ticking, Peyton assembles her team and joins personnel from the Kenyan Ministry of Health and the WHO. What they find in the remote village is beyond their worst fears. As she traces the origin of the pathogen, Peyton begins to believe that there is more to this outbreak… that it may be merely the opening act in a conspiracy with far reaching consequences.
In Berlin, Desmond Hughes awakens in a hotel room with no memory of how he got there or who he is. On the floor, he finds a dead security guard from an international pharmaceutical company. His only clue leads him to Peyton Shaw, a woman who seems to know him, but refuses to tell him how. With the police searching the city for him, Desmond desperately tries to piece together what happened to him. To his shock and horror, he learns that he may be involved in causing the outbreak—and could hold the only key to stopping it.
As the pathogen spreads around the world, Peyton and Desmond race to unravel the conspiracy behind the pandemic—and uncover secrets some want to keep buried. With time running out, they face an unimaginable decision.
“[R]eads like a superior collaboration between Dan Brown and Michael Crichton.”
Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever, and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent—and nearly five million souls in the United States alone—the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.
A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what’s now known as “Haden’s syndrome,” rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an “integrator”: someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.
But “complicated” doesn’t begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery—and the real crime—is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It’s nothing you could have expected.
“A smart, thoughtful near-future thriller… This powerful novel will intrigue and entertain both fans and newcomers.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Nemesis isn’t really SF, but it’s such a good pandemic story that it deserves a spot on the list.
Bucky Cantor is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director during the summer of 1944. A javelin thrower and weightlifter, he is disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. As a devastating disease begins to ravage Bucky’s playground, Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: fear, panic, anger, bewilderment, suffering, and pain.
Moving between the streets of Newark and a pristine summer camp high in the Poconos, Nemesis tenderly and startlingly depicts Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, the condition of childhood, and the painful effect that the wartime polio epidemic has on a closely-knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.
“[P]resents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation… Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Amy was abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued, and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her.
As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape—but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world.
“The type of big, engrossing read that will have you leaving the lights on late into the night.”
—The Dallas Morning News
The population of the entire world has been obliterated by a pandemic of vampire bacteria. Yet somehow, Robert Neville survived. He must now struggle to make sense of what happened and learn to protect himself against the vampires who hunt him nightly.
As months of scavenging and hiding turn to years marked by depression and alcoholism, Robert spends his days hunting his tormentors and researching the cause of their affliction. But the more he discovers about the vampires around him, the more he sees the unsettling truth of who is—and who is not—a monster.
“I think the author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson. Books like I Am Legend were an inspiration to me.”
Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey—with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake—through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
“Towering and intrepid… Atwood does Orwell one better.”
—The New Yorker
With The Andromeda Strain, author Crichton essentially invented the technothriller genre.
A military space probe, sent to collect extraterrestrial organisms from the upper atmosphere, is knocked out of orbit and falls to Earth. Twelve miles from the crash site, an inexplicable and deadly phenomenon terrorizes the residents of a sleepy desert town in Arizona, leaving only two survivors: an elderly addict and a newborn infant.
Under conditions of a total news blackout and the utmost urgency, scientists race to understand and contain the crisis. But the Andromeda Strain proves different from anything they’ve ever seen—and what they don’t know could not only hurt them, but lead to unprecedented worldwide catastrophe.
“A reading windfall—compelling, memorable, superbly executed… Achieves something important.”
— The New York Times
This book is nothing like (and significantly better than) the movie.
We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time? We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead, but at what cost? Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z is the only record of the pandemic.
The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.
“Will spook you for real.”
—The New York Times Book Review
By the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness,” which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but the criminal element there holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing.
“This is a shattering work by a literary master.”
—The Boston Globe
Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: she goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.
So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies cease operations. The subways screech to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.
Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?
“A stunning, audacious book with a fresh take on both office politics and what the apocalypse might bring.”
I’m not usually a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories, but Station Eleven is a great story and exceptionally well-written.
A virus sweeps through the world and quickly kills off 95% of humanity, ending all comforts of civilization. The book’s protagonist is Kirsten, a young woman traveling with a band of musicians and actors who move from town to town, playing music and putting on Shakespeare plays. They hunt for food and tread carefully in a dangerous world, but even they can’t avoid a deadly and insane prophet.
Author Emily St. John Mandel flings the reader back and forth in time, examining characters both before and after the pandemic by jumping from thirty years before the virus to twenty years after and back again. But she does so with such a deft touch that these transitions feel natural and illuminating.
“Soul-quaking… Mandel displays the impressive skill of evoking both terror and empathy.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
10 thoughts on “23 Best Science Fiction Pandemic Books”
Thank you so much for the book lists. They are great to use when ordering more stuff to read which at this point in time is essential.
I was expecting to see “Blood Music” by Greg Bear (concerning an intelligent disease, genetically engineered from lymphocytes) or “The Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis (which involves time travel to the time of the Black Plague) on here. Both are admittedly old, but both are award winners for a reason.
Admittedly Blood Music, while it does describe a pandemic, falls very much outside of what we might describe as a normal disease. Still a great read. Doomsday book required a bit more effort, but is intriguing in a different way.
Thanks for the recommendations.
I have already read 3 of the books on this list and plan to read more. Of the 3 I have read the one which I feel is the most unforgettable is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (the other 2 are World War Z and Station Eleven – both extremely good). Although there are over 60 years between publication dates, Earth Abides is, in my opinion, the most prescient and easily relatable. Divided into two periods, the book describes one man’s struggle to understand his post-apocalyptic world and to maintain the old values he believes have value in this new society. In the latter half of the story, although he still commands respect, he realises that his opinions no longer hold sway and that, for society to progress, the young will lead the way.
It is told in a straightforward style and is totally relatable in all aspects of the breakdown, and subsequent renewal, of a society. I have read it 3 times over the years and believe it to be an important book regardless of genre.
Earth Abides is one of Thebes’s books I ever read and I always recommend it.
I have read the “Earth Abides”, “Lock In”, “The Passage”, “I Am Legend”, “The Andromeda Strain”, and “World War Z”.
There are two more great stories to add to this list:
1. “THE JAKARTA PANDEMIC: A Modern Thriller (Alex Fletcher)” by Steven Konkoly
2. “Emergence” by David R. Palmer
Earth Abides makes me so angry that when I read the above glowing recommendation I just had to say something. Ish, the protagonist, is the worst possible choice to save and improve civilization. He is ignorant and incurious, always willing to settle for less. His choice of mate is proof of that. The group that he leads produce children much like Ish, also ignorant and incurious. By the end, their descendants live in the forest, hunting with bow and arrow. Yes, earth abides, but Ish’s progeny are no more than savages, descendants of an ill-equipped leader with little sense and less curiosity.
My favorite Speculative Fiction story, The Big Front Yard (Clifford D. Simak, 1957), winner of the 1959 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, is as opposite from Earth Abides as you can get. It’s about the importance of ideas in improving civilization. Never mind that it’s neither a disaster story nor a full-length novel. It’s a story about ideas, something that George Stewart’s Earth Abides lacks completely.
If Stewart meant his title to signify that no matter how low Man sinks the planet will still go on, then Simak’s title signifies exactly the opposite. I prefer to read about the burgeoning of Humanity, not its sinking into oblivion. To me, Earth Abides is a horror story, and dreary at that. For a disaster story where Mankind struggles and manages to start successfully to improve itself, read Lucifer’s Hammer (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1977). THAT’S the way it should be done.
John Ringo’s The Last Centurion is not on the list, because it’s not JUST a pandemic novel, but it incorporates a pandemic, global climate change, PC madness, Afghanistan and Iraq, military theory, domestic terror and warfare…I mean, you name it, it’s in there, and unlike so many of Ringo’s ARC’s this book is actually a stand alone novel, with a beginning, a middle, and most importantly, and end.
Some great titles treading classic ground, but surely we have to mention the Random Skies series by Jim Cheshire. First one written in 1999 about a world in recovery from ‘flu-like’ pandemics in the 2020s. A ‘great reset’ emerging from billions of dead and a handful of survivors out in the wild trying to avoid being captured and microchipped. A very scary tomorrow, that seems more likely with every passing day.
What about “The Stand” but Stephen King? Published 1978 and reprinted in 1990 Complete and Uncut Edition.
The Stand is awesome, but it wanders too far into fantasy territory for me to put it in a SF list.